The 7th annual Hmong Arts Festival, one of the largest gatherings of Hmong artists and communities in the country, will take place on August 16th at the Western Sculpture Park in St. Paul. Organized by the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), the festival’s theme of “Hmongland” evokes a key cultural element of the well-travelled Hmong communities: their lack of a homeland to call their own.
“It’s something that gets brought up all the time,” CHAT director Kathy Mouacheupao told me while sitting in CHAT’s offices. “How does not having a homeland really affect us as a community? How does it affect the way we identify ourselves, the way we see ourselves? Does it really have that great of an impact on us?”
Many answers will be put forth at this year’s festival, drawing on the reaility of Hmong life in homes as close as Minnesota, Sacramento, and Fresno and as far away as Thailand and Laos. Performance artist Katie Ka Vang and poet Robert Karimi will offer an extended meditation on the festival’s theme. There will be a visual exhibit featuring numerous Hmong artists from different parts of the Twin Cities Hmong community offering their take on the theme of “homeland.” There will also be a community art project to design flags for imagined Hmonglands as well as a “Hmong anthem.”
Mouacheupao is adamant that in addressing these questions, the festival is not trying to specify what Hmongland should be, but rather to get people “to express their thoughts and ideas about it.”
In the broader view, though, Mouacheupao sees the festival as potentially repositioning how the Hmong view themselves and how they’re viewed by others—wherever they may call home. She wants to get away from a victim-oriented mentality, one focused on the accused exploitation of the Hmong by the CIA during the Vietnam War and the continuing murder of former CIA-allied soldiers by the Pathet Lao today.
“We’ve been here for 30-plus years, and we’ve been talking about it for that long. What are we going to get out of it? I want to show the world that we are successful, that Hmong people are survivors.”
Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.